First of all, let’s get one thing absolutely straight. The
1988 Democratic National Convention was, to most of America,
about as interesting as a televised PTA meeting. But to be a
part of the whole fiasco—as a quote-reporter-unquote—was
something else entirely.
with famous folk, fellow journalists, and the nuts that
accompany any such gathering was indeed an experience. It at
least beat hanging around the house or actually working.
on the Road to Eden
convention was held from July 18-21 in the hellish heat of
Atlanta, Georgia. The air surrounding the city for weeks prior
to the convention was tense, to say the least. It was the same
feeling that sweeps your entire family when Mom tells you
Company is coming, and you’d damn well better clean up and
not embarrass yourself.
city seemed bent on seeing how far it could distance itself
from its region. “Alabama? Mississippi? Who’re they? No
pickups or good ol’ boys around here.” The ruling elite
saw this as their chance to shove Atlanta headlong into the
realm of international cities—New York, L.A., Paris, et. al.
To us native folk, the whole setup reeked of brownnosing and a
nauseating “me-too” mentality as Atlanta tried to prove it
had advanced past the days of Scarlett O’Hara.
people outside of Atlanta weren’t putting up with the new
sheen that coated the city. An article in Newsweek that
appeared a couple of weeks before the convention called
Atlanta a “Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time City.” Accurate, if
blunt. Similar editorial grenades from other journalists were
lobbed at the Big Peach.
than pulling out a verbal shotgun and blastin’ them uppity
Yanks in the tail, though, Atlanta wisely ignored the bad
press and set to showing just how good of a show it could put
there was plenty of dust that had to be swept under the city
rug. Homeless around the Omni International and World Congress
Center, sites for the convention itself and headquarters for
the overzealous press, had to be dealt with.
councilmen offered the transients brand-new Amana refrigerator
bozes if they’d relocate a couple of blocks away for a week
or so. Interstate 85 from the airport to the convention
center, with all its banners and self-congratulatory messages,
looked like the road to Eden.
fair, Atlanta turned a logistical nightmare into a smooth,
(mostly) well-organized, made-for-prime-time miniseries,
complete with theme music and 35,000 delegates, journalists,
and the Duke
part, the Democrats were determined to make this convention
run smoother than, say, Chicago 1968. The last possible shred
of suspense was effectively squashed when Jesse Jackson and
Michael Dukakis reached their understanding. “You remember
me come November,” Jesse in essence said to the Duke, “and
I won’t bring the roof down on your head in Atlanta.”
the individuals who appeared at this year’s convention is
like sizing up the individuals at an average day at Disney
World. Democrats are folks of every shape, size and income
level, from Billy Bob and his six-pack crowd in the
Mississippi delegation to the top of the Hollywood star
diversity, often running to disunity, is perhaps the main
reason why the Democrats have gotten the tar whipped out of
them in the past two presidential elections. The Republicans
have fought like hell to keep their man in office, and will
naturally do so again; however, this time, the Democrats
decided to put aside most of their petty bitching and get down
potentially the most divisive element in the entire party,
was, for the most part, the most stable and party-oriented of
all the candidates. He fairly boiled over with partisan
speechmaking. Anointed nominee Mike Dukakis was a bit more
smug, acting as though he knew all along that the upstart
reverend would come around sooner or later.
the neatest aspect about political conventions—they reveal,
for all the world to see (and, generally, ignore) just how
two-faced most of these boys running for office really are. In
the spring, they’re putting each other’s parentage in
doubt; come convention time, they’re rallying around the
victor like loyal family members.
their lineage or loyalties, however, the Dems gathered here in
Atlanta, heartened by the Democratic Congressional trump in
1986, to unify under a single candidate, a single platform,
and a singular desire to see anyone remotely connected with
the Reagan administration hitting the bricks and writing
memoirs come January.
era’s shortcomings gave the Democrats plenty of targets to
fire at during their individual speeches in Atlanta. And fire
they did—particularly at George Bush, who was “born with a
silver foot in his mouth,” according to keynote speaker Ann
Richards. Senator Edward Kennedy asked, “Where was
George?”—a slogan that became one of the many rallying
cries in Atlanta.
the Protest Zone
part, the convention began with a casual stop by my newspaper
office. After picking up an extra pass, I gathered camera and
headed downtown. After parking seven blocks from the Omni, I
was forced to run the gauntlet of hundreds of street merchants
selling everything imaginable with the Democratic logo on it.
My personal favorite was a bumper sticker a young man showed
me with the furtive air of a stolen watch salesman. It said,
of course, “Lick Bush in ’88.”
block away from the convention site was the designated protest
zone. The reasoning on the part of both the protestors and the
City of Atlanta seemed rather skewed on this point. They
agreed on specific times and lengths of time for each group to
say its piece. That’s kind of like if a couple of hostile
countries sat down together one afternoon, traded strategies
and times of attack, and then went ahead and started the war
with each other anyway.
result was a mostly tame affair. Protestors came, pled their
individual impassioned cases, and left the stage for the next
bunch. The folks who had the misfortune to be scheduled on the
days that groups like pro-Palestinians or the KKK were played
the role of opening acts for the main events. Local movers and
shakers were heard to be planning their evening schedules
around some of the more interesting protests.
few groups did manage to rattle the city’s cage a bit.
Anti-abortionists actually brought human fetuses to the
protest grounds. The KKK and some of Atlanta’s skinheads
teamed up against some black protesters the day before the
convention began. Even in 1988, racism is alive and well and
living in your hometown.
but in the name of hate would two such diverse groups join
together? These guys weren’t adhering to the “no physical
contact, we have an image to uphold here” rule either. No,
all three gangs went at each other like cats in a sack,
dragging Atlanta’s finest in with them. But no major
injuries resulted, and the groups lost their prime protest
time slots to more reserved parties.
When I got
to the protest grounds, some folks waving Bob Marley flags
“No More Businessmen’s Conventions” banners were
shouting something incoherent. It’s tough to read an entire
manifesto for the future of the world in just 15 minutes.
with Actual Celebrities
being frisked like a convicted criminal and run through a
gauntlet of anti-terrorist security devices, I made my way
inside the Omni itself. Usually packed with rabid overweight
booze hounds for Hawks basketball games or suburban rebels
with curfews for various concerts, the Omni now played host to
a plethora of suited, bespectacled, Pulitzer-seeking
journalists, each intent on finding that special angle on the
1988 Democratic platform. I adjusted my baseball cap and went
off in search of celebrities to interview.
have far to go. Naturally, every Democrat worth his salt shows
up to put in his two cents at these four-day ideologyfests.
Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Paul Simon (the one with the bow
tie), and Gary Hart were all in attendance.
I’d even had time to grab a watery, overpriced drink, I ran
into the esteemed Senator Al Gore Jr. His wife Tipper was
nowhere to be seen.
like the smooth political charmer that he is, Gore was
entertaining a host of young female reporters. When the
literary lovelies moved on, I strolled casually over to speak
Gore! Jay Busbee, The Flat Hat. Good to see you here, sir.”
Gore replied, evidently unimpressed by my journalistic
credentials. I pressed on.
caught your debate in Williamsburg a few months ago. Enjoyed
it a great deal.” Actually, I enjoyed throwing popcorn at
the TV whenever one of the Democrats made some boneheaded
comment at the famous Phi Beta Kappa Hall debate, but that was
about all. Still, the guy will be President someday.
you,” he returned, which meant he probably didn’t have any
idea what I was talking about. Anyway, Gore smiled, nodded,
and moved on to capture the heart of some young television
reporter with his boy-next-door smile.
Chung, that “lusty-eyed hot mama of the news hour,”
according to Opus in Bloom County, presented a more
challenging situation. Now, there’s something incestuous
about journalists interviewing other journalists, but hey—I
had no other reason to be there, and Connie’s as good a
target as anybody. Better her than somebody like, say, Sam
and talented Chung was conducting some sort of (I hoped)
informal interview with someone I didn’t recognize. Connie
had that look that they teach you in insightful journalists’
school—she appeared deeply interested in what the other
woman was saying, but you knew she was bored out of her mind
and would rather have been cornering Jesse for an exclusive.
At any rate, I only had time to tell her how lovely and
talented I thought she was.
look even better in real life, Miss Chung,” I offered.
glared at me, probably figuring I got my press pass from Tiger
Beat or something. Connie brushed me off with a terse
“Yes…thank you.” Hadn’t I heard that one somewhere
before? It became the brush-off of the evening.
California delegation was the place to hit to find the
politically-minded (yeah, right) members of the Hollywood set.
Rob Lowe, Ally Sheedy, Mike Farrell (B.J. of “M*A*S*H”),
Morgan Fairchild and many others were on hand to preach and be
seen. Though it reeked of setup, I valiantly plunged into the
fray to see who I could round up for a quick word.
Fairchild had already been cornered by another member of the
press corps. Good thing, too—with all that makeup, she
intimidated the hell out of me. I turned to search the crowd,
and in one of those happy instances of fate, happened to lock
eyes with “Family Ties” star Justine Bateman. With her
long brunette hair and low-cut dress, she looked absolutely
resplendent and ridiculously out-of-place in this convention
Bateman, glad you could make it,” I said, wondering if she
would deign to speak to a member of the always-overzealous
I’m so glad to be here. Atlanta’s wonderful,” she
replied. We struck up a brief conversation about various
nightclubs in Atlanta. Unfortunately, however, she was needed
for some delegation duties; thus, my incisive interview
stopped far short of biting questions or terse analysis. Not
that the conversation was headed in that direction anyway.
All the Nothing
of the hall during the convention resembles nothing so much as
a celebration on the field after the Super Bowl. Lights are
flashing, reporters are nosing, delegates are screaming and
the failed candidates are posing. There are plenty of
“experts” expounding on various issues of reporters to
time, there was a palpable aura of…blandness is the right
word, I suppose. The conventioneers were shouting and carrying
on, but they were hurling their insults at anything remotely
elephantine rather than at each other. There were no serious
floor battles, no major walkouts, no snacks between
meals—the whole scene was downright Republican in its
that’s what the Democrats were shooting for this time
around—a calm, collected convention. They certainly achieved
it—and all of Atlanta breathed a sigh of relief. Journalists
have been screaming left and right about how boring and staid
the whole convention was, and most of them are on target. I
tried my hardest, but I could only turn up one bit of
controversy that might possibly have had any significance to
the convention at large.
late in the evening’s proceedings. Jesse had just finished
his “cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war” speech,
sending the whole arena into fits of partisan ecstasy. Most of
the conventioneers were headed back to their hotels, where
their covers were turned down and a mint rested on their
pillows. I had an unmade bed and maybe half a donut in the
kitchen awaiting me.
outside the gates, however, there were several extremely
agitated conventioneers trying to get in. I saw a rather
prominent senator arguing fruitlessly with a security guard. I
walked over in an attempt to find out just what this
apparently critical problem was.
you work for?” he asked after noticing my press pass.
Stone.” Why not? He’ll never see me again.
aren’t letting me in!” he fumed. “They say the hall is
too full and I should have been on time.” He acted as if
this were some sort of an unreasonable request.
senator (who, by the way, was locked out because the Omni had
reached its maximum capacity) went on to denounce the Omni,
Atlanta, and Georgia in general. I thanked him for his time
and walked off laughing.
the beauty of this convention—seeing so many people get
worked up over what, in the end, amounted to so little. We
knew who the candidates would be, we knew the basic platform,
we knew exactly how the whole convention would go.
And I had
a fantastic time watching all the nothing from the inside.
Catch you in 1992.